The Translator Diaries: Lydia Smith

The Translator Diaries is a series that looks at how current freelance translators made it into the career. In this set of interviews, we will learn what makes them so passionate about translation, how they established themselves, and what obstacles they have overcome to succeed as a translator.


Lydia Smith (@smiffinch) is a French and Spanish to English translator with over 10 years’ experience. A former project manager, Lydia studied an MA in Technical Translation to help make the transition to freelance translator, and went on to win the ITI John Hayes Prize in 2012.

Lydia Smith

So, Lydia, at what point did you know you wanted to become a translator?

I studied French (and subsidiary Spanish) at Sheffield University. It was a fairly traditional, literature-based course, and I distinctly remember my tutor’s look of disdain when I said I would like to become a translator! I think it was considered a second-class career in the world of academia. But it was just what I wanted to do; I enjoyed translating, simple as that.

What was your first taste of the industry like?

I graduated in the early 90s in the middle of a recession, couldn’t afford to do a Master’s degree, and jobs were scarce. So I headed off to Japan and taught English to pay off my student debts. This was followed by other teaching jobs in various countries (including Spain) and finally about five years later I returned to the UK, headed to London and somehow landed a job as a Project Manager in a small translation company.

I spent three years at the sharp end of things, which was quite an education! I worked in two small companies where I was pretty much in charge of all Production and had to deal with clients too. I gained a very good idea of the translation business, of clients’ often unreasonable expectations. If possible, I would always use translators that worked in the most professional manner – reliable, always on time, easy to communicate with, asked questions, etc.

Was a postgraduate qualification necessary for your translators to have?

There were translators with translation qualifications but little industry experience, those with industry experience but no translation qualifications (sometimes no language degree) and those that had both. To have both was preferable but I often found that people with industry experience (i.e. former lawyers, engineers, City traders etc.) were the best for certain jobs.

How did you make the transition to becoming a translator yourself?

I took an MA in Technical Translation (University of Westminster) in 2001, nine years after my first degree, as I did not have specialist industry experience, apart from teaching and the translation business. I think part of the reason I chose to do the MA was to give me confidence in my ability and to give me a better grounding, some of which I had lost in the years between my first and second degrees. I wanted to see if I was any good, and what fields I could specialise in.

Ideally, I would have liked to get an in-house job in London after the MA (for which I got a Distinction), but I was now married and fell pregnant in the April before my final exams. Straightaway, I began to set up as a freelance translator and within two or three months I was getting enough work, mostly from French agencies that I had written to ‘on spec’.

How did you settle back into your job after maternity leave?

When I returned to work, using a childminder three days a week, most of my clients came back to me, fortunately. I had decided to focus on business and marketing translations, and some legal such as contracts, having dealt with a lot of these during my time as a Project Manager.

When I became pregnant again, with twins, I took about ten months’ maternity leave and my main problem over the next few years was keeping all my clients happy, as naturally my time was limited. I ended up relying on one or two main clients, which did not work out well when the recession hit in 2010. So, I had a good long look at my business plan and implemented actions to revitalise and invest in my business, and of course gain new clients.

I haven’t achieved all these aims yet, as I still have a very hectic life in and out of the office, but I am now busy pretty much all the time. Most importantly, I have been able to spend time on professional development – becoming MITI and MCIL in 2011, attending more networking and CPD events, attending webinars, generally connecting with colleagues – and clients – more than before.

You seem to have been very successful in establishing yourself almost immediately as a freelance translator with relatively little initial experience. What do you attribute this success to?

Looking back, it often surprises me that I picked up work very quickly as a freelancer after my MA, even though I did not have direct translation experience or a specialist background. I think partly this was due to pragmatism – I knew that some UK agencies only worked with MITI translators (which as a PM was something I always noted favourably on CVs) and therefore I did not target these agencies.

Secondly, perhaps it was my knowledge of the translation business and the way I presented myself to clients that helped me gain work. A lot of clients have come through word of mouth or contacts – other translators and existing clients. Of course clients come and go, but I still have a few that I’ve been working with for eight or nine years so I must be doing something right!

Any final pieces of advice?

I should also add that I joined the ITI and the IOL while on my MA course and have stayed a member of both institutes ever since, being actively involved in several ITI networks. These e-groups in particular were (and still are) a huge source of support, especially in the early days.

Next week, Ramón Olivares (@rolivares_net), a Spanish Hibernophile will talk about how his love of English-language literature and games led to his career as a translator.